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Harsh winter stresses Western Pa. pantries

Saturday, May 10, 2014, 9:00 p.m.

Teeth-gnashing cold that gripped Western Pennsylvania during the winter might be long gone, but low-income families are struggling with the aftermath of high heating bills and a sluggish economy, food pantry organizers say.

“We've come very close to running out of some proteins such as tuna and peanut butter,” said Matthew Bolton, director of the Squirrel Hill Food Pantry. The pantry in April helped 23 “emergency households” that were in dire need outside its usual service area.

That's up from 16 in March and nine in February. A year ago, Bolton said, the pantry responded to six emergency households in all three months combined.

The story is similar at the Duquesne-based Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank, which helps feed about 110,000 people across 11 counties every month. That tally climbs by about 2,500 more households monthly, said Anne Hawkins, the chief development officer.

Some food pantry leaders said increases in contributions have not kept pace with the surging need for food assistance. The annual Stamp Out Hunger food drive, run on Saturday by Postal Service workers who collect donations, could help restock shelves during the traditionally slower contribution period in the spring. The event marks the biggest single-day drive in the country, according to the postal service.

“We're not turning anyone away. But the more money we have, the more we're able to give,” Hawkins said.

The growth in demand has been steady for several years, although it appears some families are requesting help more often from the food bank's 400 affiliated agencies, she said.

“People are getting back to work, but they're still the working poor” in the wake of the 2008 recession, Hawkins said. “A lot of people are in a much better economic situation, but a lot of people have gone back to jobs that are paying half of what they were making, or jobs that pay minimum wage, and they're not getting many hours. It's still a struggle.”

At the Northside Food Pantry on Brighton Road, volunteers are serving more working-class people who need food assistance to balance other expenses such as utility bills and rent, said organizer Jay Poliziani.

“The numbers are not going down,” said Poliziani, director of Northside Common Ministries, the food pantry's parent group. The pantry supports some 900 households a month, up from 750 families about five years ago.

At one point over the winter, the North Side group provided food to 1,160 households in a month.

The harsh weather stressed the Pittsburgh-based Central Blood Bank, which lost about 3,000 blood-donation appointments from December through early March, spokesman John Pepper said. The agency normally collects 4,000 to 5,000 units of blood each month for 40 hospitals and other organizations.

“We have rebounded from winter, but we are not at a level where we need to be entering this summer. We're sort of in a no-man's land,” said Pepper, who urged eligible Western Pennsylvanians to consider giving blood.

Adam Smeltz is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-380-5676 or




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